×

‘Leaving Neverland,’ ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ Composers on How They Scored Sexual Abuse Docs

Composers Chad Hobson and Nathan Matthew David took pains to avoid sensationalizing or overly dramatizing the stories.

How do you put music to child sexual abuse — especially if the accused predators are musical icons?

That’s the challenge composers Chad Hobson and Nathan Matthew David faced as they scored HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” and Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” respectively. The documentaries are built around interviews with the alleged victims of Michael Jackson (two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim Jackson abused them as children) and Kelly (more than a dozen women who contend that Kelly seduced them while still teenagers).

London-based Hobson and Los Angeles-based David took very different approaches, yet in interviews with Variety stressed that they took pains to avoid sensationalizing or overly dramatizing the stories. “Neverland” featured acoustic musicians while “Kelly” was a studio production using synths and samples.

“The scoring approach to ‘Leaving Neverland’ was to imagine a walk through a beautiful and magical forest,” says Hobson. “But as you travel deeper into the forest it becomes darker, more distorted, the limbs of the trees becoming more twisted and sinister. … It needed to sound rich and filmic, fairy-tale like.”

Hobson recorded full orchestra plus soloists over multiple sessions. “The schedule was extremely tight, so I used orchestrators in different time zones” to handle the detail work of preparing scores — more than two and a half hours of music, he estimates.

Complicating matters, emotionally speaking, was the unexpected death of Hobson’s father the Friday before he began work. “In many ways this score is about loss,” he says, “loss of innocence, loss of my father, loss of an icon.”

David worked on the “R. Kelly” music for several months and, as it was a six-part series of one-hour shows (as opposed to the two-part, four-hour Jackson doc) that were in a constant state of flux with new footage being added, he wrote much of his music “away from the visual,” he says. “Not chasing something on screen helped to connect to a deeper part of the story.”

Interestingly, there is no musical theme for R. Kelly, David says. He is treated more with musical textures because “his character is more amorphous, always shifting. We accomplished that by not having a strong, identifiable theme for him.”

So the main “Surviving R. Kelly” theme is about the women accusers, “something that could be melancholic and dark, for the tragedy they went through, but also could be uplifting and sometimes triumphant.”

In an especially subtle touch, David took ’90s sounds, “like drum kits or keys that may have been used, when R. Kelly was writing music, and sampled them down or stretched them — using those sounds and flipping them on their heads to follow his character.”

Among the technical challenges Hobson faced in “Neverland” were “the many large, glorious wide shots cutting to and from intimate interviews. The wide cinematic shots have to be ‘hit’ while keeping away from the dialogue. Weaving the melody in subtly was important, so I’d bounce the melody around the orchestra: strings to woodwind, celeste to solo cello.”

There were various moods to be created, Hobson adds: “Sweet and light orchestral pieces, almost pastoral — the innocence, the love, the dream. Then the more haunting, toll-of-the-bell type cues, the dark part of that forest walk.”

“There is always worry” about music overreach, especially with a sensitive subject like child sexual abuse, Hobson adds. “It’s a huge responsibility to get it right.” But he has scored several Dan Reed documentaries and his team is “experienced filmmakers who, in no uncertain terms, will tell you it’s wrong if it is. Or at least bring up a thought that may set a different path for a scene.”

Neither documentary used “library” or “production” music, the generic dramatic music that is so often heard on “Dateline”-type crime-doc shows on cable. “They wanted a composer to do bespoke music, to move away from that library sound you sometimes hear in shows like this,” says David. “The idea was not overstating anything by choosing the right palette. The music was totally in service to the women and their stories. I just hope it did them justice.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • T.J. Dillashaw, right, kicks Cody Garbrandt

    Disney Plans UFC Broadcast for FX

    UFC matches will return to FX  – but not on a permanent basis. ESPN has been showing preliminary bouts to UFC pay-per-view events for the last while on ESPN and ESPN2, and then showing the main card on its ESPN+ subscription video service. In September, the early lineup will air on FX, which the UFC [...]

  • George RR Martin

    George R.R. Martin Says HBO's 'Game of Thrones' Ending Won't Influence Future Novels

    Geroge R.R. Martin is sticking to his original plan when it comes to the future of “Game of Thrones.” In an interview with The Observer, Martin claimed that HBO’s controversial ending for the series would have no affect on the endings of the last two novels. “No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything at all,” [...]

  • Listen: 'Pennyworth' Producer Talks Delving into

    Listen: 'Pennyworth' Executive Producer Talks Delving into Alfred's Backstory

    Bruno Heller may have served as an executive producer on the Batman-inspired series “Gotham” for the past five years, but it’s actually real-life people (not superheroes) that intrigue the producer the most. It’s for that exact reason that Heller’s newest series finds him exploring the origin stories of Batman’s butler Alfred in the Epix drama [...]

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content